Learning as shared practice. Towards a new understanding of education in monastic communities of the high middle ages

Leren als gedeelde praktijk. Een nieuwe kijk op kennisverwerving in kloostergemeenschappen tijdens de volle middeleeuwen
Start - End 
2014 - 2017 (completed)
Department of History
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This project aims to re-evaluate education in monastic contexts of 11th and 12th century Western Europe by relying on the concept of "communities of practice", a notion borrowed from the social sciences. Education in medieval monasteries is still too often approached as a process involving the individual acquisition of a written body of knowledge with the aid of a teacher. However, contemporary sources clearly indicate that the shaping of the monks' social, religious and intellectual identity was in fact a dialectical process, involving the mutual exchange of knowledge and ideas. Therefore, this project aims to argue that the focus was not on the individual acquisition of knowledge, but rather on individuals' involvement in a "community of learning", where active social participation in the processing of knowledge, beliefs and attitudes constituted the vehicle for the act of learning itself. In order to do this, letters are analyzed as attestations of the social contacts through which learning exchanges took place. The choice of the chronological timeframe is linked both to the abundancy of sources and to the dynamism of monasticism during the 11th and 12th century. Through a comparative analysis of the preserved monastic correspondence, four distinct aspects are addressed: a) the contents of learning, b) its personal, communal and physical context, c) the techniques (or means) for learning and d) the actors' perception of the learning process and of the way in which it aected the shaping of individual and communal identities. This allows to shed light into the complex social dynamics of learning within high medieval monastic communities, in particular the plurality of learning agents, the existence of horizontal as well as vertical knowledge exchanges, and their reciprocal nature. By setting a successful precedent,this project will also open the way for the use of the same approach to study other historical learning communities as "communities of practice".